It was a typical muggy August day in Chicago when I pulled up to McCormick Seminary in my U-Haul van, trailed by a car full of college guys – my brother and his friends, who had agreed to help me move into my new seminary housing in exchange for some good Chinese food in Chicago’s Chinatown.
I was tired but excited. I stood there in my new home ready to start my adventure as a seminary student. Even more than being excited about seminary in general, I was really looking forward to finally be a part of a mainline, ‘liberal’ Christian community. You see, a few years prior to entering seminary, I had spent 4 years at a fairly conservative evangelical college.
At my college it was always made clear to me that I was different. That my theological views were not really ‘Christian’. That my contextual spirituality was not ‘Christian’. So as I prepared to begin my first semester at a seminary with a reputation for being progressive, I was excited to finally be accepted, to spend time with people who would get it.
I realized that even while White people were inviting me to a seat at the table, they still held on to the notion that they got to invite me into that space.
Or so I thought. It took less than one semester for my ‘liberal’ seminary to start to feel like my ‘conservative’ college all over again. How could that be? These two schools, one ‘liberal’ and one ‘conservative’ were so different – or at least they were on paper! However, one key similarity bound the two together: both my college and seminary experiences were set in the context of white privilege and white supremacy. The main difference between the two? Conservatives were more overt about it – for example saying things like, “Well, maybe this college isn’t the right place for you” – while white supremacy in liberal circles it is much more subtle.
In seminary, I realized that even while White people were inviting me to a seat at the table, they still held on to the notion that they got to invite me into that space. In practice, it meant they usually also got to tell me where to sit, and sometimes tell me how to behave and what to say. After all, according to the framework of white supremacy, the table was theirs; I was just a guest.
Suffice it to say I didn’t like this one bit. It felt no different than what I had experienced at my evangelical college. I was still different in a way that made me a definitive outsider. Even as this was supposed to be a ‘Christian’ setting.
I could not bring my full self to my seminary education. This could be seen of the Master of Divinity curriculum itself. Little did I know, when I entered seminary, that I was about to spend three years of my life reading more works by dead white men than I had read in my life thus far. Even in my ‘liberal’ seminary, our curriculum was deeply Eurocentric, with the token Asian American, Latinx, Womanist, or Black Theology. If I got lucky, a class might assign one whole book representing a ‘minority’ perspective. Through the content of my studies, I received a clear message, even if it may have been unintentional: I was not free to be myself.
At the end of the day I couldn’t decide which was worse – the overt hostility of the ‘conservatives’ or the subtle racism of the ‘liberals’.
While my context was McCormick Seminary, I’ve heard other seminary students of color attending different so called ‘liberal’ seminaries – Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian – who have had very similar experiences. For just one example, check out this article by Chris Burton, alumnus of Union Presbyterian Seminary.
White supremacy also made itself manifest in social division at the seminary. I soon noticed that the commuter students (code word for mostly people of color, working professionals) and full-time students (code word for mostly white, young Presbyterians) spent very little time together outside of class.
Don’t get me wrong; my seminary experience was not unilaterally negative. I had some wonderful friends and professors, and I learned a great deal. However, I really did have to readjust my expectation of what I was getting into. At the end of the day, I had to come to terms with the fact that I live in a society where white supremacy is alive and well – and not just in ‘conservative’ circles.
For white people, it’s not about whether or not one considers oneself to be ‘racist.’ Whether or not you choose to participate in in the system overtly, if you are a white person, you benefit from it. That’s what white privilege is about.
If you are a white reader, I invite you to consider all the times in a given day that you benefit from being white. And then I ask – what are you doing every single day to intentionally go against white supremacy, to dismantle it?
My seminary experience was deeply frustrating. At the end of the day I couldn’t decide which was worse – the overt hostility of the ‘conservatives’ or the subtle racism of the ‘liberals’. One day I was sharing this frustration with someone at the seminary. He responded with an African proverb that really hit the nail on the head. As he listened to me, he nodded and told me, “It is harder to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep than someone who really is asleep.”
My frustration with my church (yes, despite my seminary experience, I did join the PC(USA) and am now an ordained teaching elder), is that there are too many of us pretending to be asleep, pretending that we ‘get’ race issues. Many well-intentioned white people pretend to know – or perhaps really do think they know – what it’s like to be a person of color living in a white supremacist world. I think if we as a church really understood what’s at stake, what kind of destruction white supremacy causes, we could not be this passive about it.
So, you ask, what should we do? If you are a white reader, I invite you to consider all the times in a given day that you benefit from being white. And then I ask – what are you doing every single day to intentionally go against white supremacy, to dismantle it?
Committing to work on racial justice isn’t just for when it’s convenient, or when you have time. Some us don’t get to choose when we have racist encounters with white people. I can promise you it is rarely – if ever – ‘when we have time for it’.
That is the level of commitment we need from our white brothers and sisters to bring about radical change. Committing to work on racial justice isn’t just for when it’s convenient, or when you have time. For you see, some us don’t get to choose when we have racist encounters with white people. I can promise you it is rarely – if ever – ‘convenient’ or ‘when we have time for it’. That’s not how life works for us. So I encourage you, my white readers, to figure out how you can intentionally reject white privilege and seek to dismantle white supremacy EACH.AND.EVERY.DAY.
I want to leave you with an illustration. A ham and cheese omelet is made with ham, cheese, and eggs. Ham comes from pigs, cheese comes from cows, and eggs come from chickens. (Still with me?) To get a ham and cheese omelet, the cow and the chicken can freely contribute their milk/cheese and eggs (respectively), but the pig has to die in order to contribute the ham. That pig is committed to this ham and cheese omelet. And ultimately, willing to sacrifice everything for it.
So I ask you, in the struggle for racial justice, are you a cow, a chicken, or a pig?
AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Interfaith Worker Justice where she directs the organization’s solidarity work on worker campaigns. She is an teaching elder and a member of the Chicago Presbytery and lives on the north side of Chicago with her spouse Joe and their daughter Ella.